The Heroes of Lefkimmi - Hilary Paipeti
If you turn left just before reaching the coast at Alikes near Lefkimmi, a pot-holed lane leads you to a wide, dusty road junction. Here, amongst the paper and can litter of the roadside, stands a pristine monument in slate-grey granite and white marble. In dazzling full sun the inscription is hard to read, but what it reveals is an almost forgotten episode of World War II, during which the Corfiots - and especially the Lefkimmiots - showed their courage and integrity.
"In memory of the event that took place on November 18 1943 during the German Occupation, in which an American B-17 War Plane Bomber with a 10 men crew on board crash landed in this area. Local Lefkimmi patriots courageously rescued them, hid them and safely led them into the hands of the allies. Municipality of Lefkimmi."
It was the morning of 18 November, and the massive Flying Fortress had just completed a bombing run on German-occupied Eleusis Airfield just west of Athens. For all but the rookie co-pilot Joe Cotton, it was the crew's 32nd mission, and it looked as if it would be a routine one. But even as they watched the explosion of their twelve 500 pound bombs before heading home, flak hit. Initial damage assessment showed two engines on fire and useless; they would have to make it to safety in Brindisi on just the two remaining ones. The crippled plane made its way westwards. But as they reached the Ionian coast, another engine failed. They would have to bail out. Whitecaps roughed the sea surface, and just as they realized they would not survive in the water, they spotted an island.
They identified it as Corfu, and pilot Dick Flournoy prepared for a crash landing on flat land near the shore. The landing was perfect, and the plane slid to a halt just short of a row of trees, with no harm to the crew. It was 1.30. Following procedure, they tried and failed to destroy the craft to save any equipment falling into German hands. Within minutes, locals began to arrive, and the crew had to abandon attempts to set the B-17 on fire when some climbed inside. Soon, others arrived with items of clothing, and indicated they should put on the clothes and follow them, before some of the many Germans in the area showed up.
Flournoy followed a small boy to a tool shed in an olive grove where he spent two days. A young lady who was hoeing a nearby field took gunner Fred Glor to a shepherd's hut, where he was to sleep the night. The others were led to similar accommodation. When the Germans arrived 15 minutes later, they were all gone, and the locals were busy stripping the plane. Disingenuously, they put the Germans off the scent by claiming that the five-member crew had already escaped in a boat. A bogus report that they had been sighted in the north of the island put an end to the German's search of the crash area, and within the next day or two, the locals led the crew to Lefkimmi, where they were put up in various houses.
Joe Cotton was the first to reach the town, later in the afternoon of the crash. Having changed into local clothes, he was guided to an olive press, where the miller indicated that he should pretend to work the mules. Soon two Germans walked in, evidently searching for survivors, but ignored the terrified co-pilot. Cotton spent his first night in a church with four other crew members, and then was billeted in the large three-floor house belonging to Harry Pappas, formerly resident in the United States.
At this point, Cotton was not aware that he was also head of the local resistance. The rest were hidden by townsfolk in various houses, except for Fred Glor, who bizarrely ended up in the town's hotel. Bombardier Ernie Skorheim's host was wheelwright Josephus Montezago, whose wife Tina had to eke out already meagre supplies to feed the fugitive. He lived mainly on bean soup and coarse wheat-and-corn bread dipped in olive oil, though there was often fish and the occasional tiny wild bird. He grew very friendly with the couple, and even managed to communicate adequately in a mixture of newly-learned English and Greek. Like the others, Skorheim developed malaria from the mosquito bites he had suffered on their first night in the marshes. He was lucky; the Montezago's son had died of the disease, and they were terrified for their charge. Thus, Skorheim received quinine from the local pharmacist, while the remainder of the crew had to suffer through the fevers, with their only treatment blood-letting by leeches. A month later, they all had more or less recovered, but the situation on the ground was deteriorating. Their hosts were increasingly hard-put to feed them, and - worse - the Germans were becoming convinced that the flyers were still in the area; periodical searches were conducted, during which some were nearly caught.
Just before Christmas, an event occured that ruled out further accommodation in the town. Flournoy's host was a smuggler by trade - and he was caught red-handed. The Germans questioned him, and he hot-headedly told them to look for the Americans instead of victimizing a poor smuggler. Fortunately, the interpreter informed the underground and, at the same time as a unit of Germans approached, the Americans were evacuated to a shack in the hills. The next day, 19 December, the Germans surrounded the town and conducted a door-to-door search. But the Americans had vanished.
The crew, together for the first time since the crash, spent Christmas 1943 in the shack, supplied with food by the locals and foraging for themselves. On Christmas Day, they risked lighting a little stove, and feasted on wild onions, olives, tangerines, fried fish and bread dipped in olive oil. Between Christmas and New Year there were many rumours of rescue, but none materialized. Finally, on New Year's Eve, they were told to get ready to move. The plan was to transfer them to the north of the island, where the coastlines of Corfu and Albania were only two miles distant. The problem was that they had to travel by main roads, and would have to pass through Corfu Town, as well as by a German army camp and an air base.
On the first day of 1944, after emotional goodbyes, they set out on five donkey carts which were carrying olive oil, pretending to be Greek workers and warned not to talk under any circumstances. The carts set out at intervals, and made slow progress towards Town. Two of the parties had very close calls, one when their cart had to stop where Germans were clearing a fallen tree from the road, and another when co-pilot Joe Cotton dozed off and allowed his pistol to be exposed; fortunately, no-one noticed. The carts reached the south of Corfu Town in the early afternoon, and could safely go no further. The Americans set out on foot in small groups, each accompanied by several silent Greeks. Pilot Dick Flournoy, at six foot four, was very conspicuous amongst the short locals, but since it was a holiday, many people were out walking. The groups had to pass right through the army base, which was built on both sides of the road. Several of the Americans were obliged to use their newly-learned Greek to greet Germans strolling in the sun.
The next obstacle was the air base, where Cotton was tempted for a foolish moment to steal a plane! They walked on northwards out of Corfu Town. From time to time, one of their Corfiot escorts would call 'Off road' and they would all hide behind bushes or in a ditch. A few minutes later, a German truck would pass. The Americans were constantly amazed at the excellent organization of the locals, who always seemed aware of a problem before it emerged. They arrived after dark in Kontokali. Exhausted, they followed their guide to a large three-floor house in the edge of the village, where they were served an excellent meal of chick pea soup, spaghetti, bread, olive oil and wine, and they slept well through what proved to be a stormy night.
Next day they had to keep a low profile and get plenty of rest, for they would travel during darkness. After nightfall, they were taken to a warehouse on the shore, and then to a deserted beach. Locals piggybacked them to two fishing boats to avoid leaving footprints. The night would be fraught with worse dangers, since the waters of the strait were constantly patrolled by the German navy, and their hosts would certainly be shot if caught. The fishermen of Kontokali rowed through the night, and as the sun rose, they could see the Albanian shore ahead. They had reached the Bay of Butrint and an hour later turned into a small river where passwords were exchanged. The exhausted fishermen had rowed for twelve hours, avoiding the many patrols and navigating in darkness to the destination.
The Americans were now in the hands of the Greek guerrillas. The next two and a half months proved an ordeal. Inadequately clad and shod, sick and debilitated, they were marched from camp to camp and back again, and between marches spent long periods of inactivity, while various plans to evacuate them fell through. The most amusing incident took place as Pilot Dick Flournoy and gunner Fred Glor, holed up in with a shepherd, were discussing life after the war, and their intention of making lots of money. Soon afterwards, the shepherd disappeared into the snow and returned with a young woman in uniform, who produced a bottle of ouzo and began to get fresh. They were too tired to take advantage of the puzzling situation; but later they found out the word money in English sounded like the Greek word for prostitute, and the shepherd had been striving to be a perfect host!
Finally, on March 15, together with the seven-man crew of a British Lancaster bomber which had joined them in January, the Americans were evacuated from the (now) Albanian coast by an Italian submarine chaser that was delivering supplies to the Greek partisans. Even then, the plan was nearly scuppered at the last minute when an argument broke out between the Italians and Greeks over payment for the supplies.
The ship reached Italy on the morning of March 16, and the crew made the final leg of their journey to the American base in Bari by truck. During the trip, they reminisced about their experiences on Corfu and in Greece, with the common thread their great admiration for the courage and cleverness of the Greeks, 'ready to do whatever was needed to see to it that we survived.'
Many of the crew members kept in touch. Some revisited Corfu during the 80s and 90s and met again the Lefkimmi folk who had helped them. Gunner Fred Glor returned for the first time in 1988. While visiting the crash scene, Glor saw a woman hoeing a field nearby. He walked over to talk to her through an interpreter. She was the same woman who, forty-five years earlier, had been hoeing the same field and had helped him escape.
The information contained in this article is derived from the book Aircraft Down! Evading capture in WWII Europe by Philip D. Caine. ISBN 1-57488-234-1.
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